by Romi Slowiak, Board member. Minnesota China Friendship Garden Society, contributor; April 2021

Sometimes you think you are not really in control of your life, not sure where you are going, and then you realize every step has led to this moment.  

My life seemed a patchwork of places and experiences: my father’s Naval post in Hawaii infusing me with Japanese art; my mother’s study of painting; a class in Chinese art history at college; a career in Urban Planning that led me to St. Paul and the founding of a nonprofit to bring arts to its East Side.  But now the puzzle pieces are shifting into a coherent vision.

Our family’s four-year stint with 3M in Malaysia ending in 1998  added a third dimension to that puzzle, deepening my love affair with Indian, Chinese, Indonesian and Malay cultures.  An early experience there was watching a Chinese artist brush paint with a mop on a wall-hung canvas: it was kung fu calligraphy! I fell in love with Chinese furniture, bringing home a “chicken coop,” baby bath, four-seasons cabinet and scholar’s desk. I wanted to be surrounded with this aesthetic.

Upon returning to the Twin Cities, I worked with Hmong dancers at art festivals, gifted Hmong pandau art to friends, and learned the Chinese dance/exercise MuLan Chuan. When I attended a Phalen Park Plan meeting indicating a “Future China Garden” in my neighborhood, I was fascinated. Learning that Minnesota Hmong had roots in our Chinese sister-city Changsha, that our Hmong senator championed this garden, I was all-in: public art that educates, heals, unites.  This was a cause I felt destined for.

Next was learning about China gardens: trips to Lan Su in Portland, Ore; the Chinese Garden of Friendship in Wichita, Kan.; Liu Fang Yuan at the Huntington in San Marino, Calif.; a Chinese garden in Kingston, Jamaica; and the epicenter of the literati gardens in Suzhou, China. We bought books, attended seminars, and turned our own yard, which started as a new driveway project (!) into a Chinese-inspired garden.

By happenstance, our contractor had a background in Japanese garden design and proposed a stunningly different concept for that improvement.  We recognized his talent, gave him books on Chinese garden design, and let him loose on the whole yard! He now returns every spring and fall for bonsai-(penjing)-style trimming of our willow and shrubs.

My husband, Bill Zajicek, laid a lot of the garden paths and takes a keen interest in plant selection and design.  The “bones” of the garden consist of a few existing oaks, a beautiful leaning willow, several "rooms" created by pagoda dogwoods, and a trained serviceberry that graces the entry. Shrubs include azalea, rhododendron, baptista/false indigo, creeping juniper, Japanese white pine, hemlocks, and yew, especially emerald taxus picata -a Japanese spreading yew that looks like wispy clouds in front of a mountain range. There are peonies, Siberian and bearded iris, and one struggling bamboo. We also have planted meadowrue whose tall stalks mimic the effect of bamboo. However, every spring its “babies” are everywhere! Water plants include marsh marigolds, water hyacinth, marsh forget-me-nots, rush, lilies and lotus.

It was a collaborative effort between us and the garden designer when it came to defining the living spaces, seating (on stones and in courtyards for meals, painting, poetry and performances) and stone selection. 

I came to realize that this landscape art - bringing Taoist transcendence, Buddhist harmony and Confucian order to rocks, water, structures and plants - is a lens into classical Chinese values such as strength, spirit, family, beauty, longevity, flexibility, feng shui and balance.

But the principle that fascinated me most was poetry. That a garden should be guided by poems, visually depicting images and scenes from them, led me to study poetry. At this point in my life, I can’t imagine where I would rather be than help bring the budding Garden of Whispering Willows & Flowing Waters/Liu Ming Yuan into full bloom or sitting in my own courtyard writing poetry. 

Keywords: China Garden, Chinese garden, landscape art


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View from the writer's desk in the mosaic stone courtyard.



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The writer’s “driveway project” evolved into a China Garden-inspired garden that serves as a perfect backdrop for guzheng artist Annelise Carlson’s performance.



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